Reflecting on the N1 accident

A friend of mine called me while I was at work on 15 October asking me why I didn’t tell him there was so much traffic in the Cape Town CBD. I shrugged him off because I was too busy with my work to pay attention to what he was saying. An hour passed and he phoned me again and said he’s still trying to get out of the city to the West Coast, where we both live. It was not until I knocked off and I was ready to leave did I realise what a disaster a freak accident on the N1 had caused. Basically I was also stranded in the Cape Town CBD,  where private cars and minibus taxies were jammed, and both MyCiti and Golden Arrow buses had trouble navigating outside the confines of Christiaan Barnard Street.

The reason I was so busy at work, such that I ignored my friend was because I was reading a September 2013 publication by the consulting firm, McKinsey about the cost of traffic on our urban roads.  If you read the first few lines there is a quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and immediately after, a rather unsettling finding that, “The chance of dying in a traffic crash is almost ten times higher in South Africa than it is in the United Kingdom.” And of course, someone did get hurt when a 24 tonne barge fell off a truck and crashed on a bakkie below. Of the 1.2 million people [globally] who die on our roads, 10 thousand die in South Africa according to the Arrive Alive Campaign.

15 October was a sure indicator that even though we are putting more and more safety measures on our roads, like legislation, the technology,  the infrastructure and parts of an integrated transport system, we are still a long way away from  seeing less deaths on our roads. It’s also quite interesting that this happened during October, which is Transport Month in South Africa.

Translating McKinsey’s casualty-prevention cost curve, we see that regulation and enforcement, which do not cost much can have the most effect at preventing casualties, while infrastructure development, although at a much higher cost, can have equally positive results. The graphic below shows how cost curves can help governments determine which relevant countermeasures have the highest impact for the money.

McKinsey Cost Curve


The unfortunate thing about accidents are that they are not unique to just Cape Town, or just the N1, but everywhere. Most of the national government’s over R800 billion three-year budget for infrastructure will go to ports and the supporting railways, and Eskom and less so for spending on public roads and transportation. And with e-Tolls popping up in Gauteng, and maybe the Western Cape (if the people lobbying for this are not fended off) it seems those kind of initiatives will be the way spending for our roads will be “taxed” on us [for us].

Currently my work involves getting consumers to buy more and more cars, so it’s very concerning when the infrastructure, road education and all the other things in the report are not adequate enough to support our growing population and economy which needs to go from point A to B. Cape Town has arguably the best transport system in Africa, which also to our advantage at this point is a system for just over 3.7 million people unlike say Johannesburg or Lagos, Nigeria. Our experiences now should be something that our counterparts look at and say Cape Town did that right, therefore we can try to replicate that too.